The ranks thin when it comes to certain instruments in genres of jazz. With the avant-garde and free jazz of the '60s and beyond, there were some trumpet players of great distinction and some enjoyable middling players, but on the whole it would hardly have been considered a crowded room compared to the number of saxophonists on hand. Jacques Coursil was technically one of the finest brass players to create avant-garde jazz in the '60s and '70s, including two brilliant albums as a leader that were released by the French BYG label. His music also possessed a great sense of intellect and vivid emotional charisma, and he drew some fine collaborators into his circle, such as alto saxophonist Arthur Jones and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, who was lodged in Paris during the period when Coursil recorded and was always vocally enthusiastic about the trumpeter. In terms of the global jazz village, Coursil had something of an exclusive passport. He was a black man and firmly part of the black jazz tradition, yet he was born in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, and was thus totally part of the European jazz scene as well. Added to this is the fact that his parents were from Martinique, in the West Indies, and as a child he was introduced to these musical traditions as well, including old Creole songs. His father pushed him to study violin at the age of nine, but he was eventually dismissed as untalented. He decided to try again at 15, and by then was under the spell of New Orleans masters Sidney Bechet and Albert Nichols, both residents of Paris at that time. Indeed, the carefree melodic probing of the great New Orleans players remained part of Coursil's improvising and the wall-shattering precision tone of these elderly horn players attempting to break through the melee became part of the trumpeter's artillery as an ensemble player. At the local music conservatory, he found a sympathetic teacher who suggested the teenager switch from clarinet to trumpet, the idea based solely on the availability of an instrument. This was the beginning of his formal trumpet studies, which continued in the United States, where as a student he had access to great jazz musicians and teachers such as pianist Jaki Byard, composer and arranger Noel de Costa, and the other-worldly free jazz drummer Sunny Murray. The latter association drew him into the free jazz camp and he began playing with the screeching, gospel-influenced tenor man Frank Wright, as well as in the outer space orgy band of Sun Ra. The philosophical dogma of Sun Ra did not impress Coursil as much as the music; he later commented about Sun Ra, "If it was only about music, I think I'd still be playing with him."
The trumpeter went on to work with drummer Rashied Ali, saxophonist Marion Brown, and many other artists on the free jazz scene. Coursil began composing at the time of his first record dates in the mid-'60s. He composed an extended mass featuring a choir, trumpet, saxophones, bass, trombone, drums, and African percussion, but this composition was never performed. There were several famous recording sessions he was involved with that were never released, deepening the mysteries of his discography. These include a big band session directed by Bill Dixon including many of the great players of that era such as Sam Rivers, as well as Coursil's own first date as a bandleader for the ESP label, featuring Marion Brown as a sideman. The later part of his career is also strangely undocumented. He spent time in New York City again in the early '70s, where he was at one time the French teacher of a young John Zorn. The trumpeter was still playing at this time, however, since Zorn has mentioned being heavily inspired by concerts he went to at the time by Coursil, it was too early for him to have been that interested in avant-garde music, he simply went because the guy was his French teacher. ~ Eugene Chadbourne